COP26, climate action and cultural institutions


( Research )

COP26 will be held in Glasgow from 31 October - 12 November, but what is a COP, and why is it important? From the 1970s onwards, there was growing recognition that human demands on the environment – or rather, our economic approach to the environment – were beyond the environment’s limits. A series of high-level conferences and reports through the ’70s and ’80s identified a growing need for international co-operation to address this situation. This resulted in the so-called Rio Earth Summit of 1992, where the member countries of the United Nations sought to agree on a new path.

The Summit resulted in three conventions, which are binding treaties under international law. The best known is the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD); the least known is the Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). The third convention is the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The Convention – as with many international agreements – is not a huge weighty volume, it is a mere 25 pages long. Its ultimate objective is “to achieve ... stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a time frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.”

Among the commitments that signatory countries made was to meet annually to monitor progress and agree on further programmes of activity to achieve the goal of the convention. Their meetings are called ‘COP’, meaning ‘Conference of the Parties’. COP26 is the 26th meeting, since the first one in 1995. Notable COPs were COP3, where the Kyoto Protocol was agreed, and COP21, where the Paris Agreement was negotiated. Each of these are further steps to try to address the great, many-headed challenge of climate change.

I have been working on climate change and museums for 20-odd years, and on sustainability topics throughout my career, first as an ecologist, then as a museum curator and manager. I became very focussed on how museums can contribute to sustainable development agendas. Why? Because museums have a lot to offer these agendas. Collections are knowledge and inspiration resources that can further public education and awareness, and research. They can support public participation in decision making and shaping policies and facilitate cross-sector working involving the public, specialists and policy makers. In a society with limited civic space, places where people come together, such as museums and libraries, can play important roles as information hubs, and places where people share their own views, concerns and ideas about the world and the future. The need for these kind of spaces is already recognised in the world of climate action. The UNFCCC includes a specific article on the importance of public education, awareness, training of staff, public access to information, public participation and international co-operation on climate change matters.

You can read the full blog on the Churchill Fellowship site